Zack Godley threw 34 curveballs on Tuesday in a 96-pitch effort that saw him hold the Dodgers to four hits and one run over seven innings. The defending NL champs knew to expect a goodly amount of them. The Diamondbacks’ right-hander went to his signature offering 35.6% of the time last year, the second-most hook-heavy ratio among pitchers with at least 150 innings, behind only Drew Pomeranz’s 37%.
The results support the frequency of usage. Per our friends at Baseball Savant, opposing hitters went just 33 for 218 (.151), with a .248 SLG, against Godley’s bender in 2017. Deception was a big reason why. Everything Godley throws looks the same coming out his hand.
“Especially the curveball,” opined D-Backs catcher Jeff Mathis. “It’s coming out on the same plane. With a lot of guys, you’ll recognize curveball right away. With Zack, you’re not seeing any keys, any little tips, when the ball is being released. On top of that, he’s got good stuff.”
Arizona’s newest backstop had yet to catch Godley when I asked for his perspective, but he had good reason to concur with his colleague.
“I can attest to that from trying to hit him,” Alex Avila told me at the outset of spring training. “His fastball and breaking ball look identical out of his hand. That’s why he gets so many swings and misses off his curveball, even though it’s nowhere near the plate. One at bat in particular stands out. Last year, when I got traded to Chicago, our first series was against these guys. Zack was pitching and I swung at a curveball that damn near hit the grass.”
Avila is far from the only hitter to have flailed at a Godley fastball that wasn’t actually a fastball. The plain-spoken Bamberg, South Carolina product induced 135 swings-and-misses on curveballs out of the zone last year. Only Corey Kluber (154) had more.
Godley is well aware of his deception. When I asked him about it, he responded with a matter-of-fact, “Yes, sir; I’ve been told that everything comes out looking the same.” He doesn’t spend much time thinking about why that is. With a polite shrug, the righty reasoned that “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
At 83.4 MPH, Godley threw MLB’s third-firmest curveball last year (min. 150 innings). Opining that there’s nothing unique about the grip or delivery, he explained his velocity with a simple, “I just grab it and throw it as hard as I can.”
While he owns up to having a power curveball, Godley demurred when I suggested that he’s trying to miss bats.
“Not necessarily,” responded the 27-year-old. “The curve is a ground-ball pitch, just like a sinker. It’s a ball breaking down and I love getting ground balls with it. It’s always nice to have a swing and miss, but unless there are two strikes, that’s not my end goal.”
He kills his fare share of worms. Last season, Godley augmented his 9.58 K/9 — and his 3.37 ERA and 3.41 FIP — with a 55.3 GB%. Against the Dodgers, 11 of the 21 outs he recorded came on balls hit on the ground.
Dustin May is one of the more-intriguing pitching prospects in the Dodgers’ system. A third-round pick in 2016 out of a Texas high school, the long-and-lanky right-hander logged a 3.63 ERA and an 8.6 K/9 in 134 innings last year between low-A Great Lakes and high-A Rancho Cucamonga. And he promises to be even better in 2018. Just 19 years old at conclusion of last season, he’s since added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame, and his fastball was sitting a smooth 94-97 this spring.
When I talked to him last August, May told me that he’s growing into more of a power pitcher. That’s a label he said he’d like to have — “I would never shy away from a strikeout: I like getting strikeouts” — which is ironic in that his best pitch is a sinker.
Thirteen months ago it wasn’t even in his repertoire. Brandon Gomes — now the club’s director of player development — made the suggestion last spring, and the results were immediate. As May put it, “Out of the gates, it was, ooh, this is going to be a heck of a pitch for me.’ He estimated that three out of every four fastballs he threw last year were two-seamers.
May’s changeup — he also throws a slider and the four-seam fastball — is a primary focus for him. Gomes told me earlier this week that the youngster has been working hard to improve his changeup, and that he’s willing to throw it both right- and left-handed hitters. May is determined to develop it. In August, he told me that while the pitch had “bit (him) in the butt” a few times, he was going to keep working on it and get it right. In Gomes’ opinion, “You’re not going to find a more focused guy than Dustin.”
May, whose flowing red hair stands out almost as much as his pitching potential, will be beginning the current campaign in Rancho Cucamonga within the next couple of weeks. He’s currently in extended spring training, where the Dodgers are building him up slowly as they monitor his innings.
The Tampa Bay Rays have bull-penned multiple games in the early stages of the 2018 season. They haven’t done so with specific who-follows-who-to-the-mound scripts. According to manager Kevin Cash, “That probably happens more with a traditional staff than it does with what we’re trying right now.”
What Cash and his staff are doing is “trying to map out nine innings with who’s available” and letting game situations dictate their moves from there. It’s not like spring training, where it’s predetermined that “This guy goes four innings, this guy goes three innings, and the next guy goes two innings.”
Limiting the number of times your starters go through the order is a factor in bull-penning, and in the Rays’s case, the scoreboard impacts those decisions, as well.
“Times through the order is emphasized more when you’re ahead,” explained Cash. “When you’re down, most clubs are doing what they can to keep things where they are, and also not use their leverage pitchers. Whether you’re running a three-man rotation, a four-man, or a standard five, you’re generally going to try to avoid using guys that you would use when you’re up.”
Last April, I wrote about how Mallex Smith was a Bunt Machine in the Making. Wanting to take better advantage of his wheels, the young Tampa Bay outfielder had been working diligently, if not laboriously, on the small-ball craft. Twelve months later, he still is.
On Thursday, Smith told me that improving his bunting remains a priority, as along with his defense, it’s something he needs to be “top-tier” When I asked him how many bunt hits he had last season, (he had five at the big-league level and five in Triple-A), his response was, “Not enough; I can tell you that… Last year, I just didn’t show the signs of a skilled bunter.”
The 24-year-old switch-hitter believes he knows the reason why. Hitter sometimes get too anxious and amped up when they’re swinging away, and Smith was guilty of doing that while trying to lay one down.
“I was trying to do too much,” admitted Smith. “Early on, when I was bunting, I was comfortable and doing fine. But then you start scuffling and your playing time diminishes, so you start putting pressure on yourself and the game speeds up. When you go step to step — bunt it first and then run — that helps you slow the game down.”
Smith expressed a similar sentiment when I asked what he’s focusing on with his swing-away stroke.
“Just more body control,” said Smith. “Making sure I’m hitting within my body. What that means is hitting with balance, and with control. That’s a word you’re going to hear me say a lot this year: Control.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Mel Ott went 6 for 15 against Tiny Chaplin.
Earlier this spring, I asked San Diego Padres prospect Josh Naylor what his primary focus is right now. His response was a simple and terse, “Hit the ball hard.” Asked to elaborate, he offered an only-slightly-more-expansive, “I just try to get in a good position, make sure my posture is right, and try to hit the ball hard. Everything else is out of my control.”
The 12th overall pick of the 2015 draft did open up a little after his initial reticence. He allowed that his hitting coaches have stressed making sure that he’s linear and that his chest is up tall when he swings. He admitted that he’s had a tendency to “try too hard,” which causes him to pull his head off the baseball. He’ll leak with his front shoulder and open up his front foot. Conversely, when he’s going well he’s relaxed and everything, including his leg kick, is on time.
Asked if he sees himself as more of a power guy — Naylor is listed at 5-11, 225 — the left-handed hitter out of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada gave a yes-and-no answer.
“I guess, but again, all you can really do is try to hit the ball hard,” said the 21-year-old. “If you hit a pitch on the ground that you (should have driven in the air), that’s your fault. But if you hit it hard enough, it can still go through. Or, if you hit it hard enough in the air, it can go over the fence.”
Naylor slashed .280/.346/.415, with 10 home runs, last year between high-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio. Originally drafted by the Marlins, he went to San Diego in the July, 2016 deal that sent Andrew Cashner to Miami.
The Red Sox hit just 168 home runs in 2017, the fewest in the American League and the fourth fewest of any team. This year’s squad is well positioned to top that total, with the addition of JD Martinez and a return to health for Xander Bogaerts’ wrist among the reasons why. Boston homered three times yesterday, bringing their early-season total to seven.
After the game, I asked Alex Cora just how many home runs they could reasonably expect to hit by season’s end.
“I don’t know how many they ht least year,” responded the first-year skipper. “One thing we’ve been preaching is to do damage in the strike zone, and if we do that we might hit doubles and we might hit home runs. But honestly, that’s something I can’t even think. I know we can score runs in different ways, and that’s what we’re trying to do. The quality of the at bats is more important than hitting home runs.”
SOME EARLY-SEASON NUMBERS
Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman is sashing .370/.564/.741 in 39 plate appearances. His 12 walks are the most of any player.
The Toronto Blue Jays have two triples so far this season, three fewer than they hit all of last year.
The Washington Nationals have 12 stolen bases (in 13 attempts), the most in the majors. The Tampa Bay Rays have one stolen base (they were successful in their only attempt), the fewest in the majors.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have 15 home runs, the most of any team. The Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, and Miami Marlins each have one home run, the fewest of any team.
Brendan McKay, Tampa Bay’s pick in the first round of last year’s draft, has stroked three hits and drawn four walks in 11 plate appearances for the low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods. The two-way player is scheduled to make his 2018 pitching debut on Monday night.
Kensuke Kondo is off to a hot start for the Nippon Ham Fighters. One year after slashing .413/.567/.557 in an injury-shortened season that saw him come to the plate just 231 times, the 24-year-old outfielder has 13 hits in 28 at bats. Shohei Ohtani’s left-handed-hitting former NPB teammate has six doubles to his credit and has drawn eight walks.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Pioneer Press, Mike Berardino told us about mystery man Josh Kalk —formerly with the Tampa Bay Rays — is making his mark, under the radar, with the Minnesota Twins.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitching prospect Taylor Clark has overcome multiple obstacles, including right-side facial paralysis, in his quest to reach the big leagues. Vince Lara-Cinisomo has the story at MiLB.com.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 1994, Chan Ho Park became the first South Korean player in MLB history when he pitched one inning for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On this date in 1993, Cleveland’s Carlos Baerga became the first player to homer from both sides of the plate in the same inning.
The first player to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game was Philadelphia A’s catcher-outfielder Wally Schang, who did so on September 8, 1916 against the New York Yankees.
The 1982 Atlanta Braves and 1987 Milwaukee Brewers hold the record for most wins to start the season, with 13. The 1988 Baltimore Orioles hold the record for most losses to start the season, with 21.
Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander Steven Brault has 25 career plate appearances and has yet to walk or strike out.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.